It was 7PM and the broad sidewalks of Downtown Newark, the city's business and shopping district, were already empty other than the crowds of people at bus stops going elsewhere. Many of the storefronts are vacant, but some of them have been filled with pop-up art galleries. We looked down onto these evening streets from the rooftop of The Metropolitan, a loft that hosts many of city's underground music parties, as well a skate shop and the occasional art exhibit.
Top 40, trap, and big room house rule nightlife here, but the homegrown hero is Jersey club. It's a style that grew out of Baltimore club back around 2001 and is full of heavy kick drum triplets and beat switch-ups. It's played at around 135 to 140 beats-per-minute and repurposes a lot of vocal cuts that are generally stripped from rap and R&B hits. While most of the people who throw parties here at The Metropolitan either have a connection to or came up through club, the sounds you'll hear on a Friday night are intentionally more diverse.
DJ Uniique has a similar mindset. Although she's undisputedly a Jersey club producer, she's interested in other genres like juke and grime and collaborates with artists from across the electronic spectrum. Her upcoming projects—a mixtape of 50 to 100 tracks (!!) and an EP—are both focused on the growth of Jersey club, including its Baltimore roots. But they're meshed with updated techniques and tricks, other styles, and her own personal flavor. "I like all my projects to have a message behind it," she reasons. "This is like a variety of Jersey club. It speaks on the evolution of the genre through the track styles."
Club producers often swap sound kits full of pitch-shifted sounds, drum hits, and loops with each other, speeding up the genre's natural experimentation and growth. When Brick Bandits—the premier Jersey club crew—put Uniique down with the team, they gave her the BBC soundkit, which is exclusive to their members. "I asked people to hook me up when I started, and it grew over time. But I also make my own samples. Some people buy them too—it doesn't hurt."
Raised in Hillside, NJ, a suburb that shares a border with Newark, she grew up with club music. Local youth are exposed to the sound very early: kids as young as 10-years-old turn up at the teen parties, and local stalwarts like Sliink and Nadus began producing at 12. While she started going to the parties at a fairly young age like everyone else, she didn't begin DJing until 2009 when she was 18—and it was a rocky start at that. Although there are other female artists in the scene now like Kayy Drizz and So Dellirious, Uniique was the only one in those days, and she had some trouble getting the boys to take her seriously.
"When I first started DJing, everyone took me for a joke. They were like, 'Sit down. Shouldn't you be dancing or something?' Until one day at a party I was just fooling around on the turntables before they opened the doors, and the people who could hear it were like 'Yo, that was Uniique? She can DJ!'"
And with that bit of luck, her hard work began to pay off and she began getting booked for gigs: "I played rap, R&B, hip hop, even a little dancehall. But it was all centered on Jersey club, that was the highlight. It was mostly house parties, basement parties, a couple youth centers here and there. Random halls. That's how the parties were. It was a mix of everything, but not really clubs, because we were too young for that. Then it started branching out from Newark to other parts of Jersey."
Being a successful Jersey club DJ in the state is no small accomplishment, and some make a living off it and even support kids. There's parties everywhere and competition is intense. There's teen DIY parties thrown by Team Lilman, Team Business, and more. Then you've got college parties put together by the likes of InkMob and Hoodstar. There's also the underground parties such as #THREAD and Thirsty Thursdays at The Metropolitan. And finally that's all rounded out with private events like sweet 16s and graduation parties.
Jersey club has seen a lot of changes over the years. It was born in Newark and originally called Brick City club after the city's nickname. But after a few years it caught the ear of artists and fans throughout the state and the name changed to reflect that. Even Philadelphia has its own scene that started evolving in around '07 into a localized sound they call Philly club or simply party music.
Dance teams and battles had always been a part of the Jersey scene. But in '09 dance routines became a central part of it. This was sparked by DJ Fresh's "Get Silly" the year before, which turned into a dance of its own. While people would still dance together, this shift often meant parties revolved around male-dominated dance battles, with dancers showing out with new moves. Things really took off by 2011 as people started releasing Youtube dance videos along with new tracks, culminating with Jayhood and Joker's "Hands On Ya Hips," which racked up maybe a million videos across multiple uploads, including a post on WorldStarHipHop. But this all soon faded in importance, although dancing is still inseparable from the scene.
"Now you just dance all night with the boys and girls," explains Uniique. "You won't go to a party in Jersey and see people standing around at all. Whether they're 'giving rides', moshing, doing a little sexy dance, a routine, or even a basic two step and just enjoying the music, you won't catch anyone standing still. You're gonna be sweaty and messed up. That's how you know it's a good party."
Violence was also a common problem, and police started shutting down a lot of parties. But things have gotten better in recent years, she notes: "The police don't bother us like they used to back in 2009, 2010. The teen parties used to be really, really bad. But it's not like that anymore. They cracked down on the promoters about getting better security so things became a lot safer. Now they also have a curfew for the teens. The police show up and kick everyone off the street at curfew. But the adult parties are a lot safer."
As it was going through all these adjustments, Jersey club started to find substantial support from more globally-connected DJs like Rizzla and Dubbel Dutch and labels like Body High who brought it to new audiences. Uniique even got the opportunity to play for Afropunk this summer, where club music was threaded throughout many of the other artists' performances, speaking to the genre's growing acceptance outside of the Garden State.
"Before, we were always the genre that people only played a couple songs of, but to see some of the sets be mostly Jersey Club—and not the radio-friendly stuff, but the music we make—that was surprising," says Uniique of Afropunk. "I was really happy. It was played by DJs from like London, not just New York and close by."
But with this growth comes concerns of exploitation and appropriation in addition to opportunity. DJs from outside Jersey are getting booked worldwide to play sets including or focused on club and outside producers are selling their own versions of it or making a name for themselves with it. But other than Sliink and now Uniique to an extent, Jersey artists rarely get any shine beyond their own world.
"I'm always the one who's more about the experience than the money," she begins. "But it's unfair. There's kids out here struggling who could really use the money. This is something we've been doing forever because it's fun and we just want to make music. This international thing is all new to us. But these new guys are just hopping on the bandwagon because it's hot."
Still, Uniique points out that it's just music and that this was bound to happen, like it did with so many other genres. So she reserves her criticism for outsider artists making Jersey club who hide their identity, which seems to be something of a trend lately: "It's cool if you're going to make Jersey club, but the masked producer thing takes opportunities away from the people who are unmasked. There's a lot of kids my age and younger who make Jersey club that don't have the connections that these guys do."
As the rest of the world has begun to latch on to Jersey club and barrel forward at the speed of light, club—and the arts generally—still continue to struggle for recognition on their home turf outside of their respective circles. "There's a lack of people here knowing about and supporting positive things like kids bonding over music or the opening of an art gallery," she laments. One way she's helping to shine a light on these positive happenings, other than gaining respect as an individual artist, is her involvement with the Jersey Club Awards. She helped start it two years ago alongside DJ Swiggs and others to give recognition to the dancers, vocalists, producers, and DJs involved.
And she's aiming high: "We want to unite Jersey."
Mike Steyels actually lives in the Holland Tunnel - @iswayski